Book Review – SOAK: Mumbia in an Estuary by Anu Mathur and Dilip Da Cunha

[Originally published in Landscape Journal 30:2 (PDF) – this is my original manuscript.  The blog post includes additional links and photos.]

SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary by Anuradha Mathur / Dilip da Cunha. Trapeze [Ram Sinam], Bangalore, Book & Exhibition Design. 2009. New Delhi: Rupa & Co. 216 pages (including: front/back piece, Note from the Director of NGMA, Foreword by Arjun Appadurai & Carol Breckenridge, Preface, Epilogue, Glossary, Image Lexicon, Notes, Author Biography). Color and black-and-white illustrations and photographs. Book Size: 9.5×11 inches. $125 [$195], hardcover. ISBN 9788129114801

By Barry Lehrman

SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary by Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha is a beguiling book that advances the leadership of landscape architecture in redefining our cities.  Moving between serious scholarship about the cartographic history of India, to creating an alternative mapping of Mumbai using sections and photographs, and concluding with proposing twelve design ‘initiations’ (08) that reintroduce the ability of the landscape to soak up the monsoon – the book expands our understanding of place-making.  The tension between applying scholarship to the design process is the reoccurring theme of their previous works, Mississippi Floods  (2001) and Deccan Traverses: The Making of Bangalore’s Terrain (2006), and their practice as landscape architects and educators.  With Soak, Mathur and da Cunha’s inquiry into iterative drawing has fully matured and engages in a larger cultural dialog (though perhaps a smaller terrain) then their previous works.

Soak emerged from an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi that was developed in response to the 2005 monsoon floods in Mumbai caused by almost a meter of precipitation falling in just one day.  The book’s thesis is that artificial delineation of land from water is impossible to maintain in the territory of the monsoon and requires a new approach to place-making that enables permeable boundaries between land and sea.

An estuary demands gradients not walls, fluid occupations not defined by land use, negotiated moments not hard edges. In short it demands the accommodation of the sea not the war against it…’ (04)

Soak is an appreciation of an aqueous terrain. It encourages designs that hold monsoon waters rather than channel them out to sea; that work with gradient of an estuary; that accommodate uncertainty through resilience, not overcome it with prediction.’ (09)

Historically, rainwater from the monsoon was captured on all available surfaces for use during the dry season, versus the engineered 20th century system of storm drains and sea walls that seek to move precipitation out to sea as quickly as possible and to prevent the tides from washing over former mudflats.  With the failure of the engineered system to handle the deluge of 2005, Mathur and da Cunha were invited to propose alternative landscape solutions that became the exhibition and the book.

Mathur and da Cunha provide detailed scholarship into the process of mapping Mumbai and the sub-continent’s coast over three centuries of European colonialism, set the stage for flooding by arbitrarily demarcating an edge between the land and the estuary.  This arbitrary ‘fair weather’ (70) delineation was a Western construct driven by the desire to catalog, divides, and sell to feed the British (and Dutch or Portuguese) Empire’s mercantile ambitions.  While the book focuses on the defining Mumbai through the craft of mapping – this cartographic scholarship process can be applied to many, if not most, modern coastal places and landscapes from New York to London, St. Petersburg to Buenos Aires.  Traditional cartography (either oceanographic charts or land surveys) exists exclusively in planimetric views, where there is a need to distinguish between different conditions no mater how diffuse the edge; Mathur and da Cunha’s opus strives to bring the section back into the cartographic realm.

Flooding in Mumbai is a modern concept and resulted from the development of the  myriad pans, tanks, and mudflats that used to accommodate the deluge.  But with the emergence of the modern city, the natural hydrology and culture of infiltration was forgotten.  Mathur and da Cuhna sleuth out the forgotten waterways, tidal mud flats, and shorelines of Mumbai – an archeology that many other cities have undertaken that seems inspired by their former colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Ann Winston Spirn and her restoration of Mill Creek.  The spirit of Ian McHarg is also present beyond the literal layering of Mathur and da Cuhna’s graphic’s and in their obsessive analysis and data collection.  But Soak transcends all these legible influences to synthesize cartographic poetry.

Exhibitions have been used as a planning tool since the days of Sir Patrick Geddes (invoked in the preface on page x) and Mathur and da Cunha succeed in transcending the banalities of contemporary planning boards and posters through their iterative drawing and sophisticated site exploration.  As an exhibition catalog, Soak attempts to mimic the gallery experience through its design.  This leads to a non-linear reading experience caused by the randomly situated text excerpts that interrupt the flow of the narrative.  Another issue with encapsulating the entire exhibit within the book is that drawings tend to either be reproduced too small to get fully appreciate their complexity or enlarged to far to understand the bigger composition (there is no happy answer to this dilemma other then providing a digital book or website that allows zooming in on the boards).  As a stand alone analogue for the exhibition, the book does capture most of the graphic information presented (better then the exhibit’s website: and provides the in-depth supplemental scholarship, but most exhibition catalogs don’t have such aspirations to recreate the gallery and are instead content to be just scholarly guides to the works on the walls.  I cannot write about if or not Soak succeeded in guiding visitors around the gallery, but from visiting Deccan Traverses, the complexity of Mathur and da Cunha’s work is best suited towards the longer immersion and repeat experience entitled by a book or website.

As Mathur and da Cunha’s iterative map-making process has matured, they shifted from hand drawings and silk screening (as seen in Mississippi Floods), into exclusively the digital realm.  While computer graphics allow for more precision and apparent more refinement of the composition, integration of text and photographs, there is a loss of poetic spontaneity and imprint of the physical process of making that made there earlier works so refreshingly original.  The intellectual rigor provided by digital printmaking does elevate each of the drawings beyond the one-off artwork of their earlier work and into the realm of design.

Perhaps the only significant shortcoming of the entire Soak exhibition is the myopic focus on the past as a lens to describe the modern conditions.  With climate change poised to unleash rising sea levels that will inundate much of Mumbai, the future implications of sea level rise and increased precipitation are left unexplored.  So what would a map of future estuary conditions provoke?  Ed Mazria’s Architecture 2030  (with NASA) created maps for many coastal cities in North America, but these maps are limited when it comes to describing the future coastlines and interplay of land/water.  With Mathur and da Cunha’s sectional techniques and iterative process, there is an experiential richness and temporality that simple orthographic projections and remote imaging cannot convey that are very well suited to exploring future potentialities.

GIS and GPS have radically changed the societal use and relationship with maps beyond what Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha document in Soak.  Digital maps and satellite imagery have become ubiquitous in many societies.  Perhaps this is most evident in the loss of orienteering abilities, dead reckoning, and the rise of the sport of geo-caching.  It is time for a new cartographic urbanism to emerge from the seeds that Soak plants.

Soak significantly contributes to the genre of contemporary cartographic scholarship and deservedly belongs on the bookshelf next to works by Denis Cosgrove and Denis Wood.  It also belongs to be cataloged with other seminal texts of landscape architecture as it transcends being a mere exhibition catalog and provides a refined answer to how analysis becomes design.  The world would be a richer (and better understood) place if more cities faced the rigorous exploration and reimaging that Mumbai was so fortunate to get with Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary.

See also:

[Correction, Anu Mathur’s name was misspelled in previous versions of this review that wasn’t caught earlier, sorry.]

1 thought on “Book Review – SOAK: Mumbia in an Estuary by Anu Mathur and Dilip Da Cunha

  1. This book has been on my to buy list for awhile along with Deccan Traverse.

    Your critique makes me question whether the book focuses perhaps too much on a form of poetic archaeological cartography, to the exclusion or reduction of a projective text. Do they offer any/much in the way of future proofed design or is the book as its title and your review suggest mostly an historic exercise?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s